Is it possible to learn a foreign language online?


Today we frequently use the Internet as a source of knowledge and learning. The recent pandemic has highlighted the immense potential of online learning when circumstances prevent attending face-to-face classes normally.

The offer is so varied that we can sign up for a watercolor or descriptive statistics course without any problem. But is the digital format equally valid for all subjects?

In the case of those that are focused on the development of skills and that require continuous practice, such as foreign languages, there are those who believe that learning is only truly effective in face-to-face classes.

In this article we will explore the perspectives provided by research in Computer Assisted Language Teaching (ELAO) and describe the potential of this learning modality , as well as the challenges it faces.

Technology and languages: a successful pairing

Since the last century numerous studies have highlighted the benefits that the use of technology brings to learning foreign languages ​​and online courses have proliferated.

Learning in digital environments offers several advantages over face-to-face learning:

  1. It is available at any time, and can be synchronous or asynchronous.
  2. It is ubiquitous, since it can happen anywhere.
  3. The learning group is open to virtual communities, it is not a closed group.
  4. It is more inclined to use innovative methodologies, compared to face-to-face learning that sometimes follows the inertia of more traditional methodologies.

As for the challenges faced by this educational modality, there is research that has detailed the differences between face-to-face and online language teaching-learning, as well as the skills that teachers must acquire to carry out their work effectively in a digital environment:

  1. Basic digital competence.
  2. Specific technical competence in computer programs used.
  3. Ability to take charge of both the limitations and the possibilities of the digital medium.
  4. Online socialization.
  5. Advice on linguistic competence.
  6. Creativity.
  7. Development of their own style (which is perhaps the most difficult to achieve for teachers who go from a face-to-face environment to a virtual one).

Pros and cons for students

Students must also develop new skills in these digital environments. In foreign languages, specifically, one of the main changes is that online interaction does not have to be immediate – it can be asynchronous – and also the information provided by non-verbal language and gestures is lost, which can cause problems in communication .

However, as an advantage of this medium we can point out the possibility of “reinventing” oneself: those students who are shy and suffer from speaking in public in a foreign language find it much easier to do so with a mobile device or the computer, since in addition the technology gives them the ability to delete and redo the activity or recording multiple times, until they are satisfied with the result.

How to avoid isolation

Another negative aspect of online learning can be the feeling of isolation or loneliness, something that is emphasized in the case of foreign languages, since their reason for being is communication, which is inherently social.

As a solution to this problem, the research points to five stages in online learning, in which the interaction between teacher and student progressively increases:

  1. Access and motivation.
  2. Online socialization.
  3. Information exchange.
  4. Construction of knowledge.
  5. Development of new acquired knowledge.

According to these stages, it is about students feeling accompanied in their digital learning, especially in those moments when it is more difficult for them.

In this sense, in the field of foreign languages, special attention must be paid to productive skills (oral and written production and interaction), since they are the ones that require the greatest cognitive effort on the part of the student.

We must be realistic

As a conclusion, we can say that it is possible to learn foreign languages ​​effectively in an online course, but we must be aware of the limitations of this medium.

So when we sign up for an online course we need to be realistic in our expectations . As we have seen, learning foreign languages ​​is a more rewarding experience when we do it face-to-face, with direct interaction and in real time, and it also requires the acquisition of new skills by students and teachers.

This requires an added effort, but in certain circumstances in which we lack time, or due to geographical, economic or other limitations –such as in the recent pandemic– these online courses become an excellent opportunity for our learning .

Author Bio: Elena Martin-Monk is Professor of English Philology at UNED – National University of Distance Education